WEST ORANGE, NJ – Rosalie Dudkiewicz, not known for staying still, has worked as a school nurse for West Orange Public Schools since 1999; but since 2014, she has been working on sharing her invention, the Zero Compression Back Brace, with as many people as she can.
As a nurse, Dudkiewicz lives for being able to help others. So when she was placed on disability after a medical procedure gone wrong, she was not sure if she would ever be able to return to work.
Prior to 2013, Dudkiewicz suffered from back pain as a result of sciatica, or pain stemming from a pinched sciatic nerve that runs from the lower back to the foot, for seven years.
“I would walk, and the pain would [start to] shoot,” she said.
Initially, she did not want to take a chance by undergoing surgery because she thought it was too risky. She postponed it by doing physical therapy and even getting an epidural block, or an injection that numbs the lower half of the body; but nothing worked.
Eventually, Dudkiewicz made the decision to undergo a minimally invasive procedure called radiofrequency ablation (RFA), which uses a laser to burn nerve tissue and signals to the brain that help avoid the feeling of pain or pressure, she explained. Unfortunately, the procedure went wrong, because the doctor “burned further than was healthy” for Dudkiewicz’s spinal disc, leaving her unable to turn her head or sleep comfortably.
Once there was confirmed evidence of Dudkiewicz’s spinal disc having damage that was not there prior to the procedure, her physician told her that it was not his fault because she could still have gotten injured sometime after the procedure.
Although she was not convinced this was true, Dudkiewicz visited the recommended pain-management doctor, who prescribed “a cocktail of medications” such as Oxycontin and a transdermal Butrans patch that ultimately did not help to reduce the pain.
Eventually, Dudkiewicz took medical leave and lost hope, stating that she spent hours lying on the couch, unable to do much of anything.
“I’m out of work now, and [I was] very depressed because when you cannot bend down, you can’t clean your home; you cannot do anything [and] I couldn’t work as a nurse,” said Dudkiewicz, adding that her faith in God is what allowed her to get through this dark period in her life. “I said, ‘God there’s got to be a reason I’m going through this. What is it?’”
In April of 2014, Dudkiewicz said she “surrendered to God” while lying down in her bed, which led her to the discovery that lying flat on her back made her pain worse.
Cupping her hand on her back in the area of the procedure, Dudkiewicz noticed that she could not feel any pain there when there was no pressure applied.
She immediately called her husband, Dariusz, into the room and asked him to “create a bridge” over her spine—and the first iteration of the back brace was born.
Her husband designed the first brace by cutting up foam cup holders that he glued together according to Dudkiewicz’s specifications. A long piece of foam board wrapped around her lower back while two sections of layered foam were worn on either side of her spine.
The brace faced its first test at the airport when Dudkiewicz was visiting colleges with her daughter.
“I was afraid they’d say, ‘what the heck [is] on her back?’” she said. “But it saved my life.”
According to Dudkiewicz, the space that existed between the cushions on that first brace protected her spine from being compressed while also allowing her spine to be aligned.
However, although the brace helped, Dudkiewicz still felt the need to design a brace with an enclosure around her waist to keep the brace from falling off. After failing to find help from local tailors and seamstresses, Dudkiewicz invested in a sewing machine and used YouTube tutorials to learn how to sew, cut and make measurements.
“You can see that I don’t have the skill,” Dudkiewicz said while holding the second iteration of her brace, which resembled a corset with a hook-and-eye enclosure. “But this was for me to wear.”
Dudkiewicz elaborated that at the time she created the second brace, she was not even considering commercializing it.
“When I created this, I was not thinking about [anybody else],” she said. “I was thinking about me; I was thinking about making something feminine because it made me feel that I was not sick, and that’s why I created it with embroidery.”
Although she was satisfied with her homemade brace, she was also on the search for a new doctor that could provide a better solution.
Dr. Patrick Roth, neurosurgeon and chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Hackensack University Medical Center, advised intense physical therapy to help alleviate her pain. Thinking his expertise would do the trick, Dudkiewicz stopped wearing the brace, but found that she was in more pain without it.
When she continued physical therapy with the brace on, however, Dudkiewicz slowly saw improvement. With this revelation, she decided to go get her own provisional patent, which she explained “gives you one year in the event that you want to do the true patent,” and sent photos to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
Shortly thereafter, Dudkiewicz was sharing the story of her invention with friends and made copies for approximately 20 people until one suggested that Dudkiewicz start her own business.
“I didn’t know there were so many people who had back problems,” said Dudkiewicz, who also found certain satisfaction in helping others.
In October of 2014, six months after she first made her brace, Dudkiewicz’s doctor was surprised to hear she was ready to return to work. When Dudkiewicz showed the doctor her creation, Roth approved and even made some suggestions for improvement. Those suggestions inspired the final product, which now has a Velcro enclosure instead of hooks, Dudkiewicz explained.
Determined to perfect her back braces, Dudkiewicz sought help from two companies in China for different components that she assembled herself at home until 2017, when she got her official U.S. patent.
Currently, the Zero Compression Back Brace is also patented in Canada, Australia, and patent pending in Brazil, Mexico, China and India.
When Dudkiewicz got back to work at West Orange schools, she wore her brace for a year and a half; and although she was careful not to aggravate her damaged herniated disc, she said that her brace helped tremendously.
“You could see I am sitting with you; I could not sit before, I could not walk before, and now I’m walking,” said Dudkiewicz, who now only needs the brace occasionally when she sleeps or the weather changes. “This brace made me free from pain medication.”
Dudkiewicz feared the addictive quality of pain medications—especially when they were not being effective. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), everyday 130 Americans die on average because of an opioid overdose, which includes prescription opioids for pain management.
She recalled countless stories of well-intentioned physicians increasing the dosage so high that a patient ends up inadvertently overdosing.
“There will continue to be over-treatment by providers that are both misguided and sincere at the same time, until treatment for back pain is paid by a different model,” said Roth, who added that although the Zero Compression Back Brace “can be used effectively in small doses—[such as] during an exacerbation of back pain—there has never been, and will likely never be, a panacea.”
Dudkiewicz noted that hers is not like any other back brace, stating that others “squeeze you” and “compresses you,” her brace “aligns you to your ‘s-shape,’ [the curve] in your back; it supports you; and at the same time, it keeps you at a traction.”
Compared to a regular brace, Dudkiewicz explained that the Zero Compression Back Brace uses elastic on the front to push the abdominal muscles in, which improves posture, while using cotton in the back, where the foam cushion is located.
She also mentioned that comparable braces are more likely to cause muscle atrophy or weakness because the elastic is squeezing the lower back and abdominal muscles at all times.
Since launching her product, which has now been expanded to include braces for men and pregnant women, approximately 12,000 braces have been sold with 93 percent of customers stating that the brace has helped them on some level.
Dudkiewicz expressed gratitude toward those who have taken the time provide feedback about her product and how it has helped them lead normal lives.
She was especially enthusiastic about a positive review from radio personality Don Imus that resulted in her highest one-day total sale of 130 braces.
“As a nurse, my job always was to improve the lives of my patients: my students," said Dudkiewicz, adding that she's thankful God was able to use her through her difficulties to help others. “I believe that God really gave me everything that I did. I really believe that this was a totally divine thing—like God put this [idea] in my heart.
“I think if I was just a lay person, I don’t think I [would’ve been] able to create that. If I was not a nurse, I don’t think I [would be] able to create it because I would not understand […] why the pain was caused. I knew everything about it because of my knowledge.”
Dudkiewicz said that “there is no price tag” on being able to help others, stating that she is content knowing she has made a difference in people’s lives.
She also explained how the business has been very much a family affair, as she and her husband work together to process orders and organize them on shelves by size while her mother-in-law helps to package the boxes. Prior to expanding her product to include men and pregnant women, Dudkiewicz also used her niece to model the original product.
Running a business while working full-time has not been easy, but Dudkiewicz said she hopes more people will learn about her product as time goes on.